A lot of editors of small- to midsized dailies are struggling to overcome the waves of budget cuts that have swept through newsrooms in recent years. Chief among their worries is: Will readers notice the cutbacks? What follows are 10 common mistakes editors can (and have) made in reacting to these cutbacks.
10. Top-down approach: In the face of dwindling resources, decide it’s too risky to trust reporters to unearth the stories of the day. Instead, hold morning meetings with middle managers to determine the paper’s contents. Let marching orders flow forth from there and ignore entreaties from reporters who insist they can sniff out something better. Insist that reporters remain in the newsroom, accessible at all times, unless out on a specific assignment, to be there at the editor’s beck and call when the next brilliant idea pops into his or her head, usually around 4:30 p.m. The result of this thinking will be fewer stories unique to the community and more generic stories, the kind that could appear in any newspaper anywhere.
9. Demand more: Let the job freeze just announced by the publisher sink in for a couple of days before dropping the other shoe: In addition to having to cover for departing colleagues, reporters must add online duties to their job descriptions. Make it clear that evaluations and raises will be based in part on the number of stories reporters flesh out online. Arrange for video interviews and have reporters dump their notebooks into sidebars the print version won’t have room to run. Or add a Q & A on that series on toxic waste dumps. Remind reporters that, incidentally, this is not an excuse to let story counts falter. The result: an immediate increase in shallow, just-the-facts stories because that’s all that reporters will have time to produce.
8. Less editorial edge: On the editorial page, inch steadily toward a centrist position with the objective of avoiding the alienation of any individual or group to the point that angry readers start canceling subscriptions. Become convinced that if no one calls to complain about an editorial then that’s a good sign.
7. Rely on focus groups: Form a focus group of readers and assign more weight to its members’ ideas for coverage than to your gut instinct. Readers often have no concept of the public-service mandate newspapers strive to live by. Focus groups will ask for more coverage of the high school girls’ volleyball team or the best rides at the state fair. Indulge them their preferences and inevitably the newspaper will move away from bold, grab-’em-by-the-collar coverage toward scrapbook material.
6. Create new community-related projects: Expand the definition of a newspaper and play a bigger role in cosponsoring community events. Better yet, dream up new projects the newspaper can sponsor entirely on its own: a bridal extravaganza or a women’s expo. “Borrow” the city hall reporter for a couple of weeks to help coordinate the coverage. Hope that no one notices the sudden dearth of stories about city hall.
5. Public special sections: In a similar vein, compensate for declining revenue by rolling out a series of special sections: A 10-page tab saluting the armed services or a medical directory that’s no more in-depth than the Yellow Pages. News columns will be siphoned away from the daily paper and reporting and editing time stolen as well. Gradually, readers’ expectations will adjust and they will come to see the paper as less of a public watchdog and more of a community “friend.”
4. Focus on “real life moments”: Soften the paper’s personality by steeping it with coverage of “real-life moments” — senior proms, 30-year grade-school reunions. Establish monthly quotas for these kinds of stories and make it clear that no reporter gets off the hook, even when real news is unfolding on his/her beat.
3. Swap reporters and beats: Shake up the newsroom by swapping reporters and beats — and do it without input from your staff. Don’t give a senior reporter the chance to argue that he plans to retire long before he tops the learning curve on that new technology beat he was just assigned. Create enough disequilibrium and a few of more veteran (i.e. higher-priced) reporters might decide to leave. Ka-ching! At the very least, morale will be seriously damaged, and the morning pages will reflect it.
2. Establish story quotas: Generate even more turmoil by establishing story quotas. Some newspapers require an average of a story a day. To give themselves time to work on meaty stories, reporters will take an item worth a paragraph or two, stretch it to 15 inches, and call it good.
And the Number One mistake:
1. WWCW: Wield as your constant yardstick the mantra WWCW — What Would Corporate Want? Corporate would want pretty papers filled with cute, inoffensive stories. But corporate has no idea what real news had to be overlooked to serve up the warm-fuzzies. Stick to pleasing the corporate managers and readers will definitely notice something lacking in their newspaper — probably its soul.
Carol Bradley, a 2004 Nieman Fellow, worked as a newspaper reporter for 26 years.